Since 1986, Grain Millers has grown from a small oat processing company in Oregon to an international agri-business that makes and packages grains, pulses and other ingredients for numerous companies. Along the way, it has become the largest organic oat miller in the world. In keeping with the “roll up the sleeves” approach of this family-owned enterprise, several of its leaders have been instrumental in POGI’s growth.
About the Grain Millers Team
- Sam Raser, corporate manager of organic procurement, chairs the POGI steering committee, bringing an international perspective from his base in Minnesota.
- Terry Tyson, general manager of Canadian operations, based in Yorkton, Saskatchewan was past chair of the steering committee, participated in advisory committees and has served as president of the Prairie Organic Development Fund, which helped finance POGI.
- Scott Shiels, Canadian procurement manager for both organic and conventional grains, provided input to the POGI website, participates in SaskOrganic and Organic Alberta committees and is following Terry as a director of the Prairie Organic Development Fund.
- Others, including Eric DeBlieck, Bruce Roskens, and Jessie VanderPoel (now retired) also served on POGI advisory committees and engaged in the efforts when called upon.
Grain Millers also stands among the industrial heavyweights who invested money into POGI’s initial four years in hope of solving a crisis in supply. Seeing double-digit growth in organic demand at the time, food companies were looking to expand their organic offerings – but milling companies couldn’t promise a consistent supply of organic grain. “That’s what mobilized us to get involved in POGI. It’s about giving our customers choice,” Terry Tyson recalls.
POGI has helped spur a dramatic rise in organic grain production, coupled with a 28% growth in organic acreage in just three years. Some feared prices would drop as a result, Terry notes, but that hasn’t happened. “It was true that demand was waiting to gobble up supply.”
Now headquartered in Minnesota, Grain Millers is actively expanding on the Canadian prairies, where the bulk of its organic products are grown. A Yorkton mill purchased in 2001 has seen a six-fold increase in production capacity and nearly doubles again in 2019, when a dedicated organic mill comes online. The company has also purchased a flax processing facility in Saskatoon and built a grain elevator in Rycroft. The recent addition of a full-time agronomist expands its support for farmers transitioning into organic or seeking to improve their quality and yield. As Scott Shiels puts it, “When you are the largest organic oat miller in the world, you can’t really ever step aside. We’re trying to help producers grow good crops to feed the world.”
What Makes Grain Millers a Champion?
Individually and as a company, the Grain Millers team leads – and cheerleads – both out front and behind the scenes. Sam Raser brings a remarkable ability to synthesize input from several sources and “cut to the chase.” As steering committee chair, he could be counted on to articulate a clear vision and help others focus on moving forward together. Terry Tyson has fully engaged in nearly every aspect of POGI’s work. Going far beyond the norm, he has contributed expertise to multiple committees and tasks. Scott Shiels’ enthusiasm for POGI has carried the program staff since the very beginning. Besides being full of good ideas, he is superb at creating community. If the team ever had a “silly question,” Scott was the go-to person who could be counted on to support, encourage and help. Those folks have full support from Grain Millers upper management and ownership, who understand the wisdom in taking the long view and truly see contributions to POGI and other worthwhile initiatives as investments in our future together.
“The first time somebody pitched me on the idea of the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative, I remember thinking, ‘Wonderful idea! Exactly what the sector needs. But who could achieve such a huge mandate?’ Everybody involved has just knocked it out of the park and moved the needle in a big way. My boss always says, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ This has been a very well-organized effort to define what we needed to do and then set about doing it, one bite at a time. It helped that companies affected by the supply situation, like us, were mobilized to write some good-sized cheques, but the people doing the work were phenomenal. There’s been a real focus on not playing the superior card – not saying organic is better than, but that it’s another option for farmers looking to diversify. POGI’s success in driving a united, pan-prairie approach was not even a key focal point, but I would say it’s almost the most important outcome. I would shudder to lose the momentum POGI has created. We have done some great work, but frankly we’re still scratching the surface of improvements that can be made in the sector.”
“We’ve seen huge changes since POGI launched. Yields are up, quality is up. Listening to producers talk about how much they get out of the Pivot and Grow website – that resource has been huge. We’re in a place now where the industry is more than a fad; it’s a huge part of the economy, and of agriculture in western Canada. Now is not the time to sit back and let it coast. We want to continue to see growth and expansion – more research, more focus on agronomics, more attention to international markets. Whether farmers grow in size doesn’t matter as long as they’re producing better crops year after year.”